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A DNA Test Brings Together Unaware Korean Sisters Half-a-World Away

By Kaomi Lee

When I was adopted from South Korea to the U.S. in 1971, I thought I came with just my Korean name, Lee So Ra, a presumed birthdate and the clothes on my back. I thought there would never be any hope to trace back to my original family. Little did I know then  that I had also come with a key: my DNA.

For more than a decade, consumer DNA tests like 23andme have been using DNA samples to estimate ethnic ancestries, predict health futures and link to relatives with an opt-in feature.

"Right now we have over 12 million customers and over 80% have found a third cousin or closer," said Jhulianna Cintron of the California-based DNA test company. "I think a lot of this information is invaluable for everyone, but specifically for adoptees because typically they don't have this information, ancestry or health. And certain ancestries can put you at a higher list of developing certain diseases, so having this information, we've heard from so many customers [that] it's impacted their lives tremendously."

One morning in March, I woke up to a message on Facebook. A woman I didn't know sent me a message saying that she thought I was her half-sister or aunt. At first, it seemed like a spam message from overseas. Or perhaps Lisa Beck, also a Korean adoptee, had simply misread the results.

I logged into my My Heritage account. It's another DNA company that I had uploaded my 23andme results to in the hopes of finding family several years ago. I had forgotten all about it. But when I looked up the account, there it was: Lisa Beck was indeed predicted to be a half-sibling or niece with 1546 cM or 21.8% shared DNA.

Then she took the 23andme test. We were able to discover that we shared our entire x-chromosome, and had different haplogroups, which trace the maternal line. We were nine years apart, with me being the elder. We consulted with DNA experts, who all concluded that we were very likely half-siblings who shared a father. And that was the result we had hoped for anyway.

After a Zoom call, we decided to meet in person as soon as pandemic travel restrictions allowed. In late July, I flew from the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to Copenhagen, Denmark to meet a half-sister for the first time. Lisa and her family met me at the airport. They waved Korean and Danish flags that her mother had recently bought for my arrival.

Although we had spoken on Zoom before, meeting face to face felt much more real. This person whom I could hug shared a parent with me; that if we had not been adopted, I might have known this person in Korea. We might have grown up as siblings. I might have assumed the role of eonni, or older sister. That our facial resemblances that fascinate us both would have been just routine, almost ordinary among siblings.

But nothing about meeting her was ordinary.

"I can see the similarities, but I can't put a finger on it, exactly what it is, I can see we look alike, I can see we look similar," Lisa told me.

Our story even made it on national Danish television. We met other Korean adoptees in Copenhagen at an event to welcome us. We sampled artful and delicious food from modern takes on the Danish open-faced sandwich to bio-dynamically grown food, which seemed to be quite en vogue.

More importantly, we got a chance to spend time getting to know one another. It was exhilarating and heady in all the ways one can imagine. An instant new friend and sibling to make future travel plans with and to lean on when times get tough. But one aspect that I did not expect was the sadness. Why were we adopted? Why couldn't we have known each other in Korea? Why did it take four decades for us to meet? Why did her adoption agency withhold from her Danish parents that the identities of Lisa's biological family were possibly known?

As much as this was a happy event, the reality of finding a biological family member for a Korean adoptee is much more complicated. It took a DNA testing company to bring us together, despite the ironclad shield of privacy laws in Korea or lack of robust support from the government to find our family members. At this writing, reportedly less than a handful of employees at the National Center for the Rights of the Child are tasked to assist adoptees with their birth family search. Yet more than 200,000 of us were sent away from Korea to be adopted overseas.

Our story of meeting each other against all odds is all of our stories. It offers a window into how we treat children, and consider their right to know their identities and migration stories. Into how the need to know one's roots and blood ties never goes away or dissipates over time.

Kaomi Lee Read More
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